October 22nd, 2017
“Use your brain” is a maxim often heard, but often resented. Such was the case when our Lord confronted professional debaters. At the age of twelve his rhetorical skill astonished the rabbis, who presumably thought that he was just a child prodigy. But later on, the legal experts were not amused when he challenged their logical fallacies; yet he came into the world to win souls and not to win debates. Those experts did not think their souls needed saving, so they cynically used syllogisms to “entrap him in speech” (Matthew 22:15). They posed a trick question about paying taxes, to which Christ responded that they should use their brains: “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21).

Using the brain to figure out things of Caesar and of God does not easily answer the question, but it does establish some solid principles. Take for instance the neuralgic challenges to capital punishment. Well-used brains have understood that the death penalty belongs to the just domain of the government. The Catechism affirms this (CCC #2267).

This principle belongs to natural law, which in classical philosophy, is “. . . the universal, practical obligatory judgments of reason, knowable by all men as binding them to do good and avoid evil.” Saint Paul appealed to natural law: “Ever since the creation of the world, [God’s] invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made” (Romans 1:20).

Governments exist to maintain “the tranquility of order.” When popes governed the Papal States, they measured out punishments including death. One papal executioner, Giovanni Battista Bugatti, served six popes, including Blessed Pius IX, and personally executed 516 felons.

That was the civil side of ruling; the spiritual side did everything possible to bring the guilty to confession and a state of grace before meeting God, because happiness is the realization of the purpose of life and is not mere pleasure; and unhappiness is the contradiction of that purpose, and not mere pain. Without that perspective, the death penalty seems an arrogant violation of life, and that is why today opposition to the death penalty increases as religious faith decreases. That dangerous alchemy substitutes emotion for truth and platitudes for reason. Such lax use of the brain is to theology what Barney the Dinosaur is to paleontology.

Two professors, Edward Feser and Joseph Bessette, have published an excellent book: By Man Shall His Blood Be Shed. Such right use of the brain explains that abuses of punishment are intolerable, and the application of mercy is a permissible use of prudential opinion. But to posit the death penalty as intrinsically evil contradicts laws natural and divine, and no authorities, be they of the State or the Church, have the right to deny what is right by asserting that.

In 1976, while I was Bishop of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee a man named John Spenkelink was accused of murder in Tallahassee, was arrested, tried and sentenced to death.  The United States Supreme Court had recently ended a twelve-year moratorium on capital punishment and I was moved to rethink my stand on the use of capital punishment by Florida since there was strong doubt that it was Spenkelink who had actually committed the murder; he was convicted largely on the basis of circumstantial evidence, not hard evidence.

I was, and still am, a strong believer in the right of the state to impose the penalty in cases of particularly heinous crime and so I had to resolve my conflicted feelings over the impending execution of John Spenkelink.  I spent a lot of time researching the subject of the morality in the 20th Century of the state employing capital punishment as means not only of punishing an individual but also as a means of deterring crime.

My research convinced me that while I should still uphold the right of the state to execute criminals guilty of heinous crime, I had to acknowledge my discovery that the system of justice throughout the 50 states was so flawed that the poor and colored minorities were more likely to be executed because they could not afford expensive legal council while wealthy criminals were likely to not only avoid execution but even stood a good chance of avoiding a prison sentence because they could afford to hire the best lawyers to defend themselves.

Worst of all,  I discovered that through the use of modern forensic medical procedures, e.g. DNA analysis, the number of persons who had been executed and who later were proven to have been innocent of the crime for which they had been convicted was shockingly high.

So I published the Pastoral Letter shown below for my Diocese.

In press interviews I shared with the public the findings of my research and I also pointed out that as far as justifying capital punishment as a deterrent to crime, in the week following John Spenkelink’s execution Florida had a sharp increase in its murder rate.

+Rene Henry Gracida


A Florida Bishop Speaks Against Capital Punishment

Bishop Gracida of Pensacola-Tallahassee: June, 1976

In the first Christian century, St. Clement of Rome wrote to his people that even “to witness a man’s execution, regardless of the justice of his prosecution, is forbidden by the moral law of Christ, for to assist at the killing of a man is almost the same as killing him.”

As a bishop of the 20th Christian century, I feel compelled to restate for my people the same warning of St. Clement of the first century, for we are once again “witnesses” to executions. In a nation such as ours, however, founded as it is on democratic processes, we are more than witnesses. Whenever the state acts in our name and with our consent we share a moral responsibility for the acts of the state. If even witnessing executions was a moral problem for Christians in the first century, it is reasonable to suggest that the use of capital punishment as an instrument of public policy poses a moral problem for 20th century Christians.

Each year in Holy Week the Passion according to St. John is proclaimed in our churches; do we not cringe when we hear the words: “We have our law, and according to that law he must die…” (Jn. 19:7). We can never forget that our Lord, Jesus Christ, was executed. God has revealed to us why he chose to redeem us. God has also revealed to us why he chose to redeem us by sending as redeemer his only begotten Son. What God has not explicitly revealed to us is why, among the countless ways in which the innocent Lamb of God could have been offered up for our sins, the Father chose to have his Son be found guilty of a law which demanded the death penalty. And so Jesus, who was sinless and guilty of no crime, was adjudged to be guilty I and was executed. Perhaps by planning our redemption through such a miscarriage of justice, God has revealed to us that the deliberate act by which society takes a human life in the name of “law and order” is a heinous perversion of justice.

We Christians must seek to conform our lives not only to the letter of the teachings of Jesus, but also to the spirit of his life and I teachings. The manner of his death speaks eloquently to us more eloquently even than some of the fragments of his verbal teachings which the evangelists recorded for us in the Gospels. The death of Jesus must serve to illuminate our minds as we examine the relationship between Christians and civil law, especially law which imposes the death penalty.

Our time is filled with paradoxes. We were long the most affluent society on earth, yet there is great poverty in our midst. We are a peace-loving nation on the international scene, yet at home violence is almost a way of life for many of us. Violence abounds in our cities and towns, on our streets and in our homes. Good people are filled with anxiety, and in their search for relief they increasingly look to the state for solutions, solutions of law.

In America, law has been used to achieve all kinds of worthy objectives: protection from arbitrary use of uncontrolled power, actual or potential injustice to person or property and many other examples of encouragement of restraint for individuals, groups or the whole body politic. But law has been sometimes misused also in some instances, with disastrous results. One has only to recall laws implementing the 8th Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, “Jim Crow” laws which legalized racial discrimination, laws which have infringed on our constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and which have subsequently been struck down by the courts; all such examples serve to remind us that the force of law can be, and has been misused. The force of law has been most frequently misused, it would seem, when, in an effort to protect the rights of one group of our society, the rights of another group are seriously curtailed or violated. Such a situation is bad enough when it involves property rights, but is intolerable when it directly affects persons physically and especially when it affects the very life of a person.

In his book We Hold These Truths, Father John Courtney Murray has written of our American tendency to solve all problems with laws. “There ought to be a law” is a familiar American refrain. This trait breeds another, namely, the tendency to believe that what is “legal” is by that very fact also “right.” Christians have a moral responsibility to review continually in the light of our conscience laws which are enacted in the name of the people of the state and nation. The separation of church and state in no way limits a Christian’s moral responsibility to evaluate laws from the perspective of Christian moral and ethical principles.

If laws are not subjected to a thorough and critical evaluation in the light of Christ’s life, teaching and death, an evaluation which has a fundamental reference to the God who is the creator of all men and women, then there is a tendency for society to make law an end in itself. If what is right ought by that fact to be legal, it seems to follow that what is legal is also right; if it is not against the law, it is all right. Here the chaos becomes complete. Father Murray says that in that situation, “law is deprived of all true sanction from the order of morals and morality is invoked to sanction any sort of law.” As a result, both law and morality lose all true meaning. Jesus Christ said it best, when he said: “A time will come when anyone who puts you to death will claim to be serving God!” (Jn. 16:2)

Slavery was abolished, and racial discrimination has been diminished because the consciences of religious men and women became aroused, leading many to spend themselves in the struggle to obtain abolition and repeal as well as to promote equal opportunity, regardless of race or color. The simple truth is that with the passage of time, and with a growth in understanding on the part of people that a particular law or system of laws contains a basic moral flaw, it becomes the responsibility of those people to change the law or even to repeal it. So it was with the law which promoted slavery it must be now with laws that impose the death penalty.

The attachment of the death penalty to a law would seem to stem usually from one or both of two motives: vengeance and deterrence. With regard to the former, the law of the talion (“An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”) surely ought to be abhorrent to the secular humanists in our society and it is completely ruled out for the those who propose capital punishment is to make it serve as a deterrent to future acts Christian by Jesus Christ (cf. Mt 5:38). Besides vengeance, the other motive usually advanced by those whoo propose capital punishment is to make it serve as a deterrent to future acts of violent crime. But the fact is, in our society, the violent crimes to which the death penalty is most often attached are committed in moments of passion-induced blindness. The human passions of anger, lust, avarice, hatred and others, more often than not “blind” a person in terms of seeing clearly the consequences of his or her acts. All that counts, all that matters at the moment is that one’s passions be satisfied. Only in retrospect is one able to “see” that the act carried within it the possibility of one’s own destruction; by then is too late, there is a victim.

Only the well-read, the well-educated members of our society are likely to be able to understand and to weigh in advance the consequences of a premeditated act of violent crime, but statistically they are the least likely to be executed and they know it. How many “professional persons” are on death row? It is simply and sadly true that those with money and power can indeed influence our imperfect system of justice. It is the poor person, the illiterate person, the person who lives a marginal existence in our sophisticated and complex society who is least likely to “see” beyond his or her act of passion to the jeopardy it brings to his or her own life. The death penalty is no deterrent to the types of violent crimes committed by the types of persons who presently occupy death row in our prisons.

I echo the expressed belief of the founding fathers of our great nation when I assert that the state exists to “establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty” for all. But I would go further and assert that, while it may indeed be necessary for the state to take human life while in the very act of resisting aggression or stopping a violent crime, it is counterproductive for the state to deliberately take the life of anyone. When the state does so it contributes to the never-ending spiral of violence in our society.

A society which vicariously pushes the button, pulls the switch or administers the lethal injection is brutalized thereby to the point of accepting deliberate, premeditated killing as a means of accomplishing an end which is construed as good. “A time will come when anyone who puts you to death will claim to be serving God!” (Jn. 16:2)

If we believe in the sanctity of human life and if we believe that God is the creator and source of human life, then we must ask ourselves whether the deliberate taking of human life, especially when it is the formal act of the state, acting in the name of all of the people of the state, is not the greatest sin of all.

While all persons of good will abhor crimes of violence and sympathize with the victims of violence, their families and their friends, it is legitimate to ask whether a greater evil is made real when the state undertakes the deliberate execution of a human being. The execution of a person has, by the very nature of the act, such an aspect of finality that, once accomplished, there is no further appeal should another form of punishment, or even acquittal and release, come to be seen as having been more desirable in the light of new evidence. The history of capital punishment in the United States sadly contains the names of innocent executed persons, whose lives the state could not restore once the error of judgment was discovered.

I call upon the Catholics of the Diocese of Pensacola-Tallahassee, and on all of their fellow Christians in northwest Florida, and on all men and women of good will, to assume responsibility for what is done in their name, to refrain from echoing the shout heard almost 2,000 years ago: “Let (their) blood be on us and on our children” (Mt. 27:25).

I urge all of these to call upon the governor to refrain from signing any more death warrants and I urge all of these to request their legislators to remove the death penalty from our laws. I urge Catholics to become actively involved in those movements which seek to abolish capital punishment as an instrument of public policy. It will be to the everlasting credit of Protestant Americans that they led the struggle to abolish human slavery from the face of America. I urge Catholics to unite with their Protestant brothers and sisters, and all men and women of good will, in the struggle to abolish capital punishment from the face of our land.

Asking God to bless all your efforts, whether in homes, schools, churches or businesses to foster those values which promote a general atmosphere wherein human life, at all stages of development, is respected and preserved, remain sincerely yours in Christ.


About abyssum

I am a retired Roman Catholic Bishop, Bishop Emeritus of Corpus Christi, Texas
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  1. Dear Excellency,
    Father Willougby, OP, a dear friend who passed on a few years ago and who was the Catholic chaplain of the NSA told me an interesting story. He was, years ago in a diocese, NY I believe, and the bishop gathered his priests and asked them the question: “Ok, we are all against capital punishment, right?”. One priest strongly disagreed. He said he was chaplain or prisons and especially had great experience with death row prisoners. He said that the death sentence was a very powerful tool of conversion of these death row prisoners. Prisoners converted very frequently and asked for the comfort of the faith. Indeed, they could witness that atheist prisoners went to their execution fighting and screaming out of fear, while Catholic prisoners were much more calm. Is not the end game that these people accept the Lord, make a good confession, and find their salvation?

  2. imprimipotest says:

    Your Excellency:

    Thank you for sharing your sincere and penetrating reflections. The unequitable administration of penalties, above all that of the supreme penalty of capital punishment, is truly an abomination. And no person ever ought be subject to unjust imprisonment, least of all, the threat of capital punishment.

    “If we believe in the sanctity of human life and if we believe that God is the creator and source of human life, then we must ask ourselves whether the deliberate taking of human life, especially when it is the formal act of the state, acting in the name of all of the people of the state, is not the greatest sin of all.”

    This line of reasoning has often been proposed during the last few years, although often without such coherence and succinctness.

    I wonder, however, whether there are not several issues subsumed within and obscured by these formulations. One, of course, is the true and real need for certainty that ‘x’ person has merited such a penalty. Too many, admittedly, do not grasp the difficulty of attaining certitude “beyond a (i.e. ANY) reasonable doubt.”

    Nonetheless, two important issues seem to remain unaddressed:

    Is it truly the case that “retributive” justice can and should be sought at all? If it can be, it should be. But retribution is not should not be considered to be vengeance, even if the application of such may “per accidens” be tainted by such. To confound the two is itself an injustice towards truth, just as it would be unjust to deny that there can be a righteous anger. And as for deliberately doing ‘x’ that is harmful to another, it would seem that so long as intrinsic evil is “praeter intentionem” such action is permissible.

    Second, should one make into an absolute axiom or unqualified principle “the sanctity of human life,” has one not thereby implicitly abrogated (and eventually obrogated) the true distinction between “innocent” versus “non-innocent” life?

    It seems to me that these considerations are important in our era, in which ideological secularism is so dominant among certain quarters of our societies.

    Most Sincerely,

    Michael B. Ewbank

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